Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may be because I’ve just started to pick up running as a hobby, but I seriously enjoyed this book–at least in the fuzzy afterglow of my first read through, I’d rank it among his best.* It’s essentially a stoical meditation on accepting that one’s natural gifts, whether athletic or literary, are limited, and that one must patiently hone those skills over the long haul. His skill with an anecdote is on full display as he relates stories from his career as an amateur runner; I never felt bored, as often happens when I read/hear enthusiasts reminiscing, perhaps because the stories Murakami tells seem to illustrate what’s important about amateur athletics.** By way of an example, there’s one bit about a triathlon in Niigata: before entering the water, he uses a kind of grease to make sure that he’ll be able to remove his swimming gear as quickly as possible once the swim is done. The only problem: he forgets to clean his hands before wiping off his goggles, and spends the first leg of the event in a fog. Whether that image is comical or agonizing for you as you read it, there’s something deeply sympathetic going on, and he manages to sustain that sympathy through the whole book. And that is just as impressive as a record time in a marathon or triathlon.

One of the reasons his stories work is that they aren’t built solely to evoke the kind of immediate pathos that anecdotes about personal failure or triumph often chase. His steady, dogged pursuit of marathon running and novel writing is impressive and laudable and all that, but there’s also something bathetic and self-aware and cosmically comedic about it as well: “I’m still lugging around that suitcase [a metaphor for his stubborn, sometimes unpalatable personality], most likely heading toward another anticlimax. Toward a taciturn, unadorned maturity–or, to put it more modestly, toward an evolving dead end.” He’s channeling Kafka here: we are dynamic and full of vitality and the capacity for change and achievement, but our lives are also a kind of dead end. There’s something comic and tragic and absurd and deeply human in that, and he nails that slippery, tricky mix better in this book than anywhere else.

If that last quote seems a little too negative for you, there’s plenty of inspirational stuff that echoes Camus’ the Myth of Sisyphus. Murakami acknowledges that running (and, by extension, writing) is quixotic, and yet, “Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher-vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into and old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*As so often happens with Murakami, I’ve got a pet theory about this. A big part of his recent book 1Q84 was the artist’s sublimation/transmutation of insoluble problems through art. His character Tengo says this in 1Q84, but it is pretty clear that Murakami believes something similar. The phenomenon I’ve come across reading his books is that Murakami is usually transmuting the same problems (paralyzing or traumatic memories of the past, the pain of being an individual and a part of society) into similar forms: loners with great taste in music and literature who make their way through a magically realist environment. I liked this book so much because there was less artifice to it; without the machinery that he’s been using over the past 30 years to tell his stories, it’s just him, his personal philosophy and beliefs, and the reader. There’s a beautiful, elegant, complex simplicity to it.

**His ability to illustrate his own limits with stories is important, because it grounds the modest character his personal writing often evinces.

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